Thursday, 3 June 2021

La Civil (Teodora Ana Mihai, 2021)

It has just been announced that Belgian Flemish film La Civil by Teodora Ana Mihai has been chosen for the Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes 2021, in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section. Following on from Hugo Claus’s The Sacrament in 1990 and Lukas Dhont’s Girl in 2018, this is only the third time in recent history that a Belgian Flemish production has been included in the prestigious official selection.

La Civil is the first fiction feature by Belgian-Romanian director, Teodora Ana Mihai (born 1981). The film tells the story of Cielo, a Mexican mother searching for her daughter who has been abducted by members of a drug cartel. As the authorities fail to help her, Cielo takes things into her own hands and gradually turns from housewife to avenging activist. The film was shot in November-December 2020 in Durango, Mexico, during the COVID-19 pandemic. La Civil is based on real events and is the result of several years of extensive research undertaken by the director in collaboration with Mexican writer Habacuc Antonio de Rosario.

The film was produced by Menuetto (Hans Everaert), an Antwerp-based production company in coproduction with high-profile partners, including the Dardenne brothers from Belgium (several Palmes d'Or), Cristian Mungiu from Romania (Palme d'Or) and Michel Franco from Mexico (Silver Lion, Venice). Cinéart will release the film in Belgium [and The Netherlands] in late 2021. “I am truly happy with this selection in Cannes. I’m incredibly grateful that it has been possible to tell this heart-breaking story of families who lost their children to drug cartels. La Civil is a film about a strong woman and mother who refuses to be a victim and defends herself. She is motivated by a primal force to find her daughter at whatever cost. It is a universal story that will touch everyone", says Teodora Ana Mihai.

La Civil was inspired by the terrifying stories of drug cartel victims and their families, such as the compelling and tragic life of Miriam Rodríguez, recently featured in The New York Times. The atmosphere of La Civil is reminiscent of the crime drama series Narcos, but is narrated from the victim’s point of view. Mexican writer Habacuc Antonio De Rosario co-wrote the screenplay with Teodora Mihai.

Source/images: The PR Factory

Monday, 24 May 2021

Magic Mountains (Urszula Antoniak, 2020)

Lex (Thomas Ryckewaert), a Dutch writer of popular novels, has money and fame but no peace of mind since Hannah (Hannah Hoekstra) left him years ago. Lex wants to close the relationship in a symbolic gesture and asks her to go with him to the mountains for a last climb together. Voytek (Marcin Dorocinski), a professional mountain guide, is hired to take the two to the remote starting point and leave them there. But Voytek senses that Lex is unstable and refuses to leave Hannah alone with him.

Director's note:  We don’t have rituals for closing relationships. After we are left by the person who was the centre of our life, there is no funeral that will symbolically make him or her pass and leave our life. In ‘tinderised’ times, people move in-and-out of relationships in search of happiness - ‘leaving behind’ is part of the search. Lex needs to give a meaningful end to his relationship with Hannah, once his partner in life and climbing. Their last climb together, his symbolic gesture to close his past with her, will be the start of his new life.  “Help me to forget you” - Lex almost obliges Hannah and I think he is right in that. Relationships come with responsibility.

Mountain climbing and relationships have similar symbolism. Both are based on trust. “She was always second.” - says Lex to Voytek about Hannah. Both in life as in climbing, Hannah was always following Lex.  “Now she goes first” - answers Voytek, and he lets Hannah climb alone as anticipation of the final countdown between her and Lex.  In Magic Mountains the action sequences belong to her, rather than him. Actress Hannah Hoekstra demanded to do the climbing scenes herself. Like her character in the film, she is unstoppable and unbeatable.

Source/images: Wide

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Maya the Bee: The Golden Orb (Noel Cleary, 2021)


Following on from both her eponymous 2014 big screen adventure and 2018's The Honey Games, lovable bee Maya makes a welcome return to cinemas with The Golden Orb.  Maya's third feature film was due to be released last year but was put back on account of the COVID-19 pandemic; rather than go direct to streaming—a route that has become commonplace over the past year or so—The Golden Orb has been held over until cinemas are able to reopen.  Although it's a second sequel, The Golden Orb works just fine as a standalone film, so no prior knowledge of Waldemar Bonsels' apian creation is necessary; it's hard to believe that it's now well over a century since the publication of the book featuring Maya's first adventure.  With its simple message, vibrant colour scheme and appealing, top-drawer animation, The Golden Orb, like its two predecessors, is aimed squarely at younger children, but there is much here for older children and adults to enjoy, too.

When Maya and her friends finally reappear in cinemas (on May 17), you will soon discover that the title character and her best friend Willi don't share the patience of the film's distributors, as their eagerness to say goodbye to lockdown sees them emerge prematurely from their hive; one calamitous glowworm-related incident later, and the bees' queen decides to separate the pair before they can cause any more trouble.  In all fairness to Willi, it was Maya who was the architect of the situation, but irrespective of how the blame should be apportioned, the queen feels it will take something remarkable to make her change her mind regarding the sanctions she plans to impose on the young bees.  Thankfully, something remarkable does come the way of Maya and Willi when they are entrusted with the orb of the title.  Spoiler alert—the orb is actually an egg, from which an ant princess duly hatches.

While this development occurs quite early on in the film, there's still plenty of well-paced excitement to come as the two bees strive to deliver the princess to the other ants; it's quite a mission, and there's an added complication as some dastardly beetles—who are engaged in a turf war with the ants—are going to extreme lengths to get their claws on the cute newborn, who has formed quite an attachment to a surprised Willi.  Along the way, the bees encounter a couple of well-meaning but rather clueless soldier ants who, as so often seems to be the case with ants in animated works, are sporting army helmets.  The energetic proceedings are occasionally punctuated with songs, with nefarious beetle Bumbulus proving to be the real star of the show when it comes to taking the mic.  As the pursuit rages on, the princess' party offer an olive branch (or rather, a leaf) to the beetles, which hints that unity may be a better option for all concerned.

Given the uncertain futures of cinemas and the films which play in them, The Golden Orb's release provides an excellent opportunity for families to get along and support both the film and the venues that will be hosting it; filmgoing is a part of life that can be hard to return to once you've been away from it for a while, but a trip to your local cinema is fairly certain to provide a quick reminder of the joys of watching a film on the silver screen.  Three years ago, I saw The Honey Games in a cinema in France; back then, none of us had any idea of the drastically changed world its sequel would be released into.  While there is little doubt that the viewing habits of many will have changed permanently during lockdown, the efforts of those behind the The Golden Orb's release deserve to be rewarded with solid footfall as the film rolls out in cinemas; this cheerful, optimistic slice of animation is just the thing to jump-start your year at the movies.  Showtimes and tickets are available here.

Darren Arnold

Images: Strike Media

Monday, 19 April 2021

Us Among the Stones (D. R. Hood, 2019)

Back in 2011, Dictynna Hood made a bit of a splash with her debut feature Wreckers, which boasted a couple of major stars in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, two actors who have seen their careers skyrocket in the years since that film was released.  Like WreckersUs Among the Stones was selected for the London Film Festival, where it played at the last pre-COVID edition of the annual event; beyond the possibility of further festival screenings, this Belgian co-production's commercial prospects look as bleak as its Dartmoor setting.  The lead role in Hood's latest film (her first since Wreckers) is played by Laurence Fox - son of James, star of UK TV series Lewis, and ex-husband of Billie Piper (whose directorial debut Rare Beasts also screened at the 2019 LFF).

Fox plays Owen, a resentful, difficult man who is caught in the crossfire of a family gathering in which the birthday girl - Owen's flaky mother - is apparently not long for this world.  The family appears to be a bohemian, eccentric operation - there are references to a childhood in which drugs were commonplace in the home, a situation which led to the young Owen accidentally taking acid; as you might reasonably expect, this incident still bothers him.  There are other characters floating in an out of the remote family farmhouse: Owen's brother/father/uncle/ex-partner et al, and our angry young(ish) man endures a quite fractious relationship with virtually all of them.  He seems both irritated by everyone and completely unsure of his place in the world, and, all told, he's impossible to warm to.

Move beyond Owen, however, and you'll find no respite; pretty much every adult character here is unreliable, unappealing, and self-absorbed - which in itself doesn't mean that a film isn't worthwhile, but it had better have something else up its sleeve.  Sadly, Us Among the Stones doesn't serve up much more, and the obligatory dinner table fireworks fail to provide any upturn in the viewing experience; there are tiresome revelations about characters you aren't invested in, and the arguments during the birthday meal might have been more interesting if everyone had been getting on - or even pretending to get on - in the buildup.  In such films, watching the lid blow off the pressure cooker is almost always the best bit.  But after more than an hour of watching this lot bicker away, there's little novelty in seeing them continue to do so as the film reaches its ostensible climax.

It's tough to get a handle on Us Among the Stones, and it continually feels as if it's wriggling out of your grasp - and not in a good way; rather than challenging the viewer, the film simply fails to engage.  There are one or two interesting aspects, such as the frequent use of stills photography, which is quite effective in terms of aesthetics yet never feels connected to anything more meaningful in the story.  The uncomfortable dinner party in which home truths are slung around is nothing new in cinema, and there are countless other, superior examples of movies which hinge on such a scenario - Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, an obvious reference point here, being one such film.  Despite a few brief flickers of potential, Us Among the Stones proves to be a monumentally wrongheaded film, and its 95 minutes make for quite an ordeal.

Darren Arnold


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

BFI Flare 2021: the stats

The 35th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival (17-28 March), the UK’s leading LGBTIQ+ film event, closed on 28 March and celebrated reaching increased audiences across the UK and internationally. Overall, the Festival saw 37,516 attendances for the film programme of features and shorts on BFI Player, plus 8,808 views for BFI Flare events, bolstered by the BFI Flare Screen Talk with Russell Tovey, which drew an audience of 4.4k across BFI YouTube and BFI Flare Facebook. In addition, the BFI Flare programme launch received 8,202 views across BFI Flare Facebook and BFI YouTube channels. In a continued partnership between BFI Flare and British Council, the seventh edition of the global campaign #FiveFilmsForFreedom saw worldwide audiences of 1.7 million viewers engage with the five featured short films online. 

Over 12 days between 17th–28th March, BFI Flare was more accessible to audiences across the UK than ever before, with 26 virtual feature premieres and 38 free shorts screened from 23 countries on BFI Player. BFI Flare hosted 4 World Premieres, 6 International Premieres, 1 European Premiere and 10 UK Premieres from across the features programme. 

 In a first for BFI Flare, each film was available for ticket holders to watch at any time throughout the duration of the festival. Additional elements included exclusive intros and Q&A’s with filmmaking talent and programmers and discursive panels. The BFI Flare programme was made even more accessible to audiences through closed captioning (supported by Mishcon de Reya) and audio description on all English-language films. Over 40% of virtual attendance for films came from outside of London and included key cities with Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow and Sheffield seeing the biggest audiences for features. 

All films have been extremely popular this year with virtual feature attendances reaching 79% of total occupancy and 66% of ticket buyers new to BFI Flare. Particular favourites included Peeter Rebane’s lavishly told, cold war drama FIREBIRD, Phil Connell’s heartfelt family drama JUMP, DARLING, starring the late Hollywood legend Cloris Leachman, Harri Shanahan and Sian A. Williams’ joyful history of post-punk dyke culture REBEL DYKES, Eytan Fox’s entertaining SUBLET, Zaida Bergroth’s biopic of beloved Moomins creator Tove Jansson, TOVE, Eugen Jebeleanu’s probing Bucharest-set drama POPPY FIELD and Shirel Peleg’s culture clash comedy KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP.

Source/image: BFI

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020)

Screening as part of BFI Flare until tomorrow, Cowboys stands as one of the very best films playing at this year's festival.  Which is quite the compliment, given that the 2021 edition of Flare has boasted an especially strong lineup; having now seen every one of the 26 feature films, there isn't one title in there that isn't worthy of your time and money.  Given that most film festivals usually serve up their fair share of duds, the quality of this year's Flare programme is testament to the terrific work of the team responsible for the event; the standard of this year's edition is all the more remarkable when you consider that the festival was assembled under the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 (last year's Flare was cancelled on account of the pandemic).  If you are unable to access the excellent Cowboys on the festival platform, it is also available to view on Apple TV.

The film centres on Troy (Steve Zahn), a father struggling with both bipolar disorder and a fractious relationship with his estranged wife Sally (Jillian Bell).  Troy and Sally have an 11-year-old named Joe (Sasha Knight), whose gender dysphoria is a bone of contention between the two adults; Troy is very supportive of Joe, while Sally is generally unwilling to accept that her child identifies as a boy.  Troy has moved out of the family home and, as is so often the case with such arrangements, the matter of parental visits is another cause of conflict; it's fair to say that no-one in the family is having a particularly great time.  Following one especially fraught episode, Troy and Joe hastily plan to run away together, and the two head off on a horseback odyssey through the wilds of Montana, with the goal being to cross the border into Canada where, according to Steve, a more accepting society awaits.  Meanwhile, Sally has alerted the authorities, and a determined—yet not completely unsympathetic—detective (Ann Dowd) sets off to track down the missing child.

Throughout Troy and Joe's journey, we're treated to flashbacks which fill in more details regarding both of them, and through these we witness a family disintegrating as various pressures are piled on.  The film isn't keen on apportioning blame, however, and it's refreshing to see that Sally isn't cast as the villain of the piece; while we're shown that Sally has been difficult, we also witness occasions when Troy does little to help his own (or anyone else's) cause, and it's clear that both of the parents have contributed to the decline of their marriage.  Meanwhile, in the present, Joe and Troy (and their quite magnificent horse) edge their way through the wild, with their transient life in the rural Northwest recalling 2018's similarly-themed Leave No Trace.  One night, Joe wanders away from the campsite and promptly falls into a nearby river; although Troy comes to the rescue, he loses his medication in the process, and in the days that follow his behaviour grows increasingly erratic, which is especially troubling given that he's carrying a gun.  As the trek grows ever harder, the two trudge on towards Canada, but at the same time the police are gaining ground on the runaways.

Cowboys features some great performances—Zahn, Bell, Knight and Dowd all turn in terrific work here, and the film makes for a taut, tense affair, one in which you feel as if you're never far away from disaster, which is probably a fairly accurate representation of a life spent both on the run and in the wild.  While the film certainly doesn't shy away from the issue of gender dysphoria, it really isn't the driving force behind Cowboys—rather, the story of a father doing whatever he can to help his child is the beating heart of the film.  Troy may be misguided—most would agree that his plan to whisk his child away is not a very clever one—but there's no doubting his sincerity, and he clearly believes that his actions are going to benefit Joe.  There's plenty of nuance here and, just as with the film's reluctance to demonise Sally, there's no attempt to sell Troy's actions as the correct ones.  Troy is simply a desperate man doing what he thinks is best; while we're required to sympathise with (and even root for) him, we're at no point asked to buy into what he's doing, and we get so caught up in caring for Troy and Joe's wellbeing that we largely forget about the hare-brained nature of their quest.  Cowboys is a gripping, affecting tale, sensitively told.

Darren Arnold

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Sublet (Eytan Fox, 2020)

Ten years ago, Matthew Haigh's Weekend was released to great acclaim; while I found the film to be perfectly watchable, I was (and remain) puzzled by the ecstatic response that greeted what, to my eyes, was a fairly minor diversion involving a brief encounter between two men.  Eytan Fox's Sublet, which screens as part of BFI Flare until Sunday, may well be doomed to unfavourable comparisons to Weekend, but for my money Fox's film is the far stronger work.  Much of Sublet's appeal lies in the presence of John Benjamin Hickey, who delivers a terrifically moving turn as a fiftysomething travel writer on assignment in Israel.  Hickey's Michael is an affable, gentle type, yet there's a melancholy aspect to him that can't be ignored.  In what is effectively a two-hander, Hickey is joined by newcomer Niv Nissim, a young Israeli actor who makes an impressive screen debut as he rises to meet the high bar set by his experienced co-star.

When Michael arrives in Tel Aviv to write an article on the city's lesser-known attractions, he finds that his rental accommodation hasn't been vacated; instead, young film student Tomer (Nissim), who is the one subletting the flat to Michael, thinks the rental period isn't due to start until the following day.  Once the mix-up has been sorted, Tomer hastily gathers up some of his things and leaves Michael in the cluttered, messy apartment.  Michael settles in and checks in with his husband David (Nomadland producer Peter Spears) who, it transpires, has been clandestinely working on finding a surrogate mother for the couple; Michael is irked to discover this, and it seems that the ambition of becoming a parent is one he's lost his enthusiasm for.  It isn't long before Tomer returns to the flat to collect some more of his belongings, and it turns out that the student doesn't have too many options for other places to stay while he rents out his apartment for some much-needed cash; Michael is basically fine with the idea of his landlord sleeping on the couch, so Tomer winds up in the position of receiving a rental income for an apartment he's still staying in.  Michael would like something in return, however, and proposes that Tomer be his guide around the "real" Tel Aviv as he researches his article.  As Tomer isn't short on time, he happily agrees.

As in all good two-handers, it is the gap between the pair that provides the main source of interest, but as Michael and Tomer spend more time together, we see how their many differences (for example, attitudes to AIDS) give way to some common ground; as well as being gay men, the two share a faith (many years previously, Michael actually visited Tel Aviv for his bar mitzvah).  When prompted for some insight into the Israeli mentality, Tomer memorably opines, "We're in the Middle East, but want to be treated like we’re in the West", and with this statement it becomes fairly clear that, in cultural terms, Michael can probably learn more from Tomer than vice versa.  Yet the older man's views on relationships and family life are there for Tomer to absorb; to the script's great credit, Michael doesn't dive headlong into the habits of the rather hedonistic Tomer, but instead stands his ground when his guide tries to introduce him to the joys of, say, MDMA or the Israeli version of Grindr.  Neither man concedes too much to the other, and this makes their lively, thoughtful (and largely non-confrontational) conversations all the more remarkable.

Sublet is both well-written and well-acted, and it has much in common with another Flare 2021 title, Daniel Sánchez López's Boy Meets Boy (pictured above), a slightly lesser work which also sees a local guiding a tourist around a major city while the clock ticks down; furthermore, both of these men, just like Sublet's Michael and Tomer, have radically different views regarding relationships.  In López's film, the city in question is Berlin, somewhere that two of Sublet's satellite characters are planning on moving to, much to Michael's bewilderment; the writer questions why they would want to live in a country that symbolises so much in the way of Jewish tragedy, and the response highlights a generational divide, one which thankfully doesn't get in the way of Tomer and Michael's ongoing dialogue.  It's only in the final reel that Sublet takes an unfortunate misstep into predictability, but for the bulk of its running time this is a thoughtful, moving piece of cinema, one that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Darren Arnold

Images: Daniel Miller / BFI